Dallas, MLS has found a new star in Ecuadorian Graziani.By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service
(Monday, November 8, 1999) -- Major League Soccer has a new star, a 28-year-old striker with a disarming smile from Ecuador who has come close to taking over the playoffs for the Dallas Burn.
Ariel Graziani has been the difference the last two months for the long-mediocre franchise, providing a vital presence in the penalty area and leading his team to a strong second place finish in the rugged Western Conference.
Then he sparked a first-round 2-1 series win against defending champion Chicago Fire. And he produced one of the finest exhibitions in MLS history yesterday, scoring twice against the Los Angeles Galaxy and then netting the winning shootout goal. That deadlocked the conference championship series at 1-1, with the decisive third game Thursday in Los Angeles.
He's had three goals against a Los Angeles defense -- keyed by Robin Fraser, assisted by Paul Caligiuri and Gregg Vanney -- rated the best in Major League Soccer.
No flukes were involved, either. The first goal Sunday came on a header, and the second was truly spectacular a backheel shot. Both goals tied the game.
"I'm just a on hot streak right now,'' he told reporters. "Forwards tend to be streaky. Sometimes they go a long time without scoring."
He was signed in mid-season by Major League Soccer, and went to New England amidst some controversy, with then-coach Walter Zenga wanting a defender, instead. After three scoreless games, he was traded to the Burn, and there was controversy there, too, with Dallas having to yield its premier player, defensive midfielder Leonel Alvarez.
No problem exists now - with Graziani having scored four goals in eight regular-season games, and five more in five playoff matches. He is the Man in Dallas, who practically single-handedly has revived the Burn after three years of .500 results.
Whether he can keep up the pace -- particularly with his defense depleted by an injury to Brandon Pollard and yellow-card suspensions to Eric Dade and Sergi Daniv -- is questionable. The Galaxy has its own hot hand as well in Carlos Hermosillo, who also had two goals and a shootout score in Sunday's defeat.
Hermosillo's goals likewise were brilliant -- a header and a chip shot over a strangely far-out goalkeeper Matt Jordan, which he duplicated in the shootout.
Dallas doesn't have the midfield presence of Galaxy mainstay Mauricio Cienfuegos, but everyone looks for Graziani -- he doesn't blow the few chances he gets.
The Columbus Crew last year routed D.C. United, 4-2, in the middle game, similar to its 5-1 win Sunday that evened the Eastern Conference finals at 1-1. They'll meet Saturday in Washington, where the Crew has lost 12 straight during the four-year history of MLS.
Crew midfield playmaker Andrew Williams, on the bench much of the season, made a rare start and won praise from coach Tom Fitzgerald: "He had a superb game.''
Stern John had the final three goals -- but Eddie Pope wasn't in the game at the time, the star defender lifted at halftime due to an ankle injury. The Crew, especially Mike Clark, showed intensity on defense, but can this team, which has underachieved the last two seasons, shut down Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno & Co. two straight times?
D.C. United blanked the Crew, 3-0, last year in the conference title match
-- the only championship series in MLS to go three games before this year.
Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at
Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.